Patron Saint of Prostitutes
Josephine Butler was a middle-class Victorian woman; a respectable wife and mother, safely ensconced in a culture that idolised wives and mothers. She nevertheless exposed herself to abuse and humiliation in her campaign for the rights of prostitutes. Under the Contagious Diseases Act, these often vulnerable and voiceless women were subject to humiliating and painful gynaecological examinations and forced quarantines. Butler was a vocal opponent of the Contagious Diseases Act and, as a result, the target of insult and innuendo. One MP said ‘I look upon these women who have taken up this matter as worse than the prostitutes’. Helen Mathers’s biography of Butler – Patron Saint of Prostitutes: Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal – builds a rich history of sexual ethics and early feminist thought around the life of one remarkable woman who isn’t as celebrated, or as well known, as she should be.
Butler’s life as a campaigner was lived between the familiar, and much repeated, extremes of Victorian womanhood – the virgin and the whore, the scarlet petal and the white – and, in part, her biography tells the story of her radical refusal to accept either of these degrading stereotypes. Responding to the idea that wives were to be idolised as ‘superior beings, for worship’ Butler called it ‘a thing which every sensible and honourable woman rejects with scorn’. Mathers convincingly argues that this ‘worship’ was intended as a more or less conscious salve to lives that revolved around the pain, danger and long-term illness associated with childbirth, the heartbreak of infant mortality and the drudgery of domestic labour. This myth of the virtuous mother – ‘the angel in the house’ – was, Mathers says, ‘a convenient smokescreen to legitimise the oppression of women’.
These eulogising attitudes had their more overtly sinister flipside and women who failed or refused to fit the mould were correspondingly despised. Dr William Acton, the scientific authority behind the Contagious Diseases Act, believed that ‘the majority of women (happily for society) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind…She submits to her husband’s embraces, but principally to gratify him: and, were it not for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attentions’. If you weren’t a mother, you could only be a virgin or a whore.
By the time she became an active campaigner for women’s rights, Butler was familiar – at first and second hand – with the hardships faced by women living in an unapologetically patriarchal culture. She gave birth to four children with little medical assistance and suffered from an unnamed and untreated gynaecological ailment for years after one particularly difficult delivery. In 1863 she lost her young daughter in an accident, an event which prompted her to take a more hands on role in the alleviation of other women’s suffering. She went into workhouses and prisons armed with stories about her own ordeal and pictures of her daughter. By rejecting the status of idol, she implicitly rebelled against labelling other women as sexually deviant or irredeemably lost. ‘I used to cry out’ she wrote, ‘for some way of escape for starving women and saw thousands of them being swept up with a broom and hidden like ashes under a huge grate, by political economists’. Prostitution wasn’t an isolated issue but flourished in a society that didn’t care for its most vulnerable. Butler challenged a social system which didn’t value women, as much as she championed a particularly abused and persecuted minority.
As Mathers sensitively outlines, this was a feminism with so little in common with post 1960s ideas about women’s rights that it is almost misleading to use the same word. Butler was certainly ‘radical and unusual’ for her time and made strong claims for equality of opportunity in employment and education, even suggesting that women could aspire to become ‘captains of industry’, an almost unthinkable idea for a Victorian woman to entertain, let alone express. Mathers’s book is, in one sense, a history of feminism before it had a name.
The work of male philanthropists to alleviate the suffering – and save the souls – of ‘fallen women’ is perhaps better known than that of their female counterparts. Charles Dickens work at Urania House, for instance, has been widely discussed. The female voices in this argument are less often heard but, as a contemporary urged Butler, ‘these women must find representatives of their own sex to protest against[…] the Parliament and Government which had flung this insult in their face’. One MP was reported to say ‘this is very awkward for us – this revolt of the women. It is quite a new thing; what are we to do with such an opposition as this?’ Women speaking up for women sent a powerful political message. This is the seldom-told history that Mathers’s biography unearths.
This biography interleaves stories from the burgeoning campaigns for women’s liberation in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Butler had a hand in many different projects before the Contagious Diseases Act galvanised her energies and monopolised her attention; she took a particular interest, for instance, in the law of coverture which stated that all a woman’s possessions, including her children, rightfully belonged to her husband. This book implicitly argues that women’s suffrage was only one fight in a battle for equality that was waged on many fronts by all sorts of different people.
Though this is a fascinating book which tells an important and too-little known story, there are problems of style and structure that have to be waded through before getting to the substance of the history. The book opens with a plodding and uninspired narrative of Butler’s early years. Until her work began, Butler’s biography doesn’t feel very remarkable and it is not enlivened by Mathers’s occasionally pretty unstylish delivery. This period of Butler’s life, though an interesting and perhaps necessary prelude to her political work, might have been dispensed with more quickly or handled more dextrously. Patron Saint of Prostitutes opens with a prim life of a prim Victorian woman who had a strong faith and an admirable devotion to her family. It is only as the book progresses that the strands of her life come together and we are shown how her experiences informed her activism and developed into an instinctive feminism. This gradual cohesion is too slow in coming.
This is an important and timely book, packaged and (in large patches) written like a slightly boring one. The issues it raises around institutional sexual abuse and hypocritical sexism, resonate with problems with which we are still grappling. Even the ‘steel rape’ legalised by the Contagious Diseases Act finds disturbing contemporary parallels. This biography can be hard work in places but it is an intelligent and richly researched book that deserves to find a wide readership.
Patron Saint of Prostitutes: Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal by Helen Mathers, Hardback, ISBN 978-0-7524-9209-4, £16.99